Megan Hays, PhD is a clinical psychologist who coaches well-being with physicians, medical students and residents in the UAB Medicine Office of Wellness while also working with patients at the UAB Spain rehabilitation center.
Because I work with both healthcare providers and patients, I get to see how both groups are handling the COVID pandemic and it's provided me with an interesting perspective.
It's been a long haul. Most of us were feeling hopeful in June, but the recent surge with the delta variant has been hard on both healthcare professionals and patients.
The American Psychological Association has been tracking data on Americans' stress levels during the pandemic and they released an update of their survey results in March. One of their findings was that weight management has been a concern during the pandemic, with many Americans struggling to manage their weight. While a number of people gained unwanted weight, others lost more weight than they would like. A large number of Americans also reported sleep disturbance with people either sleeping too much or not enough.
There have also been higher levels of psychiatric diagnosis in the general population with some of the highest levels in essential workers. And even outside of psychiatric diagnoses, I'm seeing more anger than usual.
Q: What topics have sparked feelings of anger or stress in your patients?
One topic that is generating anger is that feeling that this could have been prevented. People felt different during the surge last winter, but now that we have effective vaccines and good information on the value of wearing masks, the fact that we got here again is frustrating for people. Likewise, it seems that just the length of time this has lasted - over 18 months, now - has worn on people.
Q: Is the anger causing splits among families? What is your advice with families going into the holidays?
The pandemic has become wrapped up in a sociopolitical context, and that has led to some discord in many families. You may have one family member who has refused to get vaccinated, while the rest of the family received the vaccine, and they may have strongly differing opinions on that. They might have conflicting views on the level of threat COVID presents, as well as the efficacy of the science.
People deal with this in different ways. Some people will set boundaries by taking a topic like vaccines off the table. It's fine to set whatever boundaries you deem appropriate. I recommend communicating openly with family members about these things, rather than suppressing your feelings. And instead of trying to shove your opinion onto them, be curious, and try to gain some understanding about why they have a different opinion than you. By expressing curiosity, we may get them to open up and have a productive discourse. At the very least, let them know why you feel the way that you do.
Q: During the pandemic, many people are struggling with information overload, especially from social media. What recommendations do you have for this?
In addition to information overload, social media has also contributed to an overload of misinformation with a lot of confusing messages. Social media algorithms show us more articles like ones we have already clicked on, which is one reason why many people's opinions get set in stone. Even worse, algorithms are designed to steer people to more extreme articles because people will stay on those longer. It's meant to be addictive.
It doesn't have to be a bad thing, but you need to be aware of these issues. It can be healthier to visit social media with a purpose. For example, maybe you want to learn something about pregnant women. Search for that particular content, find a reputable source, and read that information to get your question answered. Then maybe go ahead and get out of there.
The problems come up when we're just scrolling and we end up staying on the site for hours. So it helps to limit our time. In trying to do this, if you get distracted by notifications on your phone that lead you into these apps more often, turn off notifications. And you can schedule certain times of day to consume social media and set limits for yourself.
Q: What do you say to those who have been on the front line, to keep pushing through and to not give up?
I think it's encouraging to those on the front lines that they have already made it through so much. People are resilient.
Although I had mentioned some discouraging findings regarding stress, at the same time, many people are reporting resilience and even some positive outcomes related to the pandemic, as hard as that is to believe. There is a psychological concept called post-traumatic growth. We can actually learn from traumatic experiences and come out resilient on the other side. It gives me hope to know that we can adapt difficult circumstances and I think our healthcare workers have shown that.
At UAB, we really do value the well-being of our healthcare providers. Our administration knows that they are stressed and there are systemic changes in the works.
Q: What techniques do you advise people to incorporate into their daily routine to combat heightened feelings of anger or stress?
There are things we can do to activate our parasympathetic nervous system, which helps to calm us. A beneficial breathing exercise is to breath in for four seconds and then hold it for four seconds, followed by a long exhale through your mouth for four seconds. That will calm down your nervous system pretty quickly. You might also try yoga, meditation, or a nice bath. Even just chatting with a friend or going for a walk can help.
Finally, another strategy that I love is something called radical acceptance. This is accepting that there are things about this situation that are out of our control. It doesn't mean we are giving up. But we don't want to fight reality. We accept things as they are, not as we wish they were. That actually has a lot of power.